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The State of Texas is considering legislation to impose criminal penalties against individuals who falsely claim their pets are service animals. While this is a tragically common occurrence, the Texas law is nothing new. Under federal law, and many other states' laws, it is a crime to falsely claim a pet as a service animal.
Essentially, by claiming a pet is a service animal, a person is faking a disability to get the benefits that a disabled person is entitled to. The Texas bill would make it a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of $300 and 30 hours of community service. To be found guilty, a person would have to identify their animal as a service animal, and could do so simply by using a typical service animal type harness, or vest, and would need to have done so for the purpose of getting the benefit of having a service animal.
While most state and local health laws prohibit bringing pets into restaurants, under federal and state laws, exceptions for service animals are required. Unfortunately, many overly zealous pet owners mislabel their pets as service animals in order to get around laws prohibiting pets in restaurants and other businesses.
Also, while emotional support animals will frequently be permitted on planes, or in housing regardless of a lease's terms, under federal law and in most states, a public accommodation, such as a restaurant or retail store, is not required to accommodate an emotional support animal.
What makes the mislabeling of service animals such a problem is the fact that public accommodations are limited in what they can ask to confirm whether an animal in fact is a service animal. The two questions are:
These two questions are designed to cut to the heart of the issue of whether an animal qualifies under the federal ADA protections. Generally, service dogs are required for a person with a disability to function or be safe, and service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to serve a disabled individual. Frequently, service dogs are described as "working dogs" because they are always on, watching for cues from their owner.
While emotional support animals provide legitimate benefit, those fall under a different category than a full service animal as they typically are not required for a person to function or be safe, nor are they usually trained to perform specific tasks related to a disability.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.